Learning styles, we’ve all heard of them, we’ve all filled out a questionnaire or two. Honey & Mumford, Kolb and others are theorists we’ve all heard of. Reflector or pragmatist? Visual/Auditory/Kinaesthetic learner? What about your learners? How do you differentiate for learning styles in your classroom?
Learning styles make us feel good. Discussion opens educational dialogue between teacher/trainer/learner – a lexicon of learning, making us feel professional, as if we’re adding value, promoting the deep-rooted psychological domains of learning. The problem is however, that the learning styles field has been built on foundations of sand. The theories are unproved. Their usefulness and application don’t stand up to academic scrutiny, or peer review.
The whole field of learning styles was comprehensively and professionally scrutinised in 2005/6 by Professor Frank Coffield and his team, funded by the Learning and Skills Research Centre. Their remit was to examine learning styles theories and comment on their usefulness and application in the post-compulsory sector. They “sought to sift the wheat from the chaff among the leading models and inventories … basing conclusions on evidence, reasoned argument and healthy scepticism”
In 16 months of research the team identified 71 models of learning style and categorised 13 of them as major models for detailed examination (matching them against the minimal criteria of internal consistency, test-retest reliability, construct validity and predictive validity). Amongst critiques of 10 other models you can read a detailed review of Honey and Mumford’s Learning Styles Questionnaire (LSQ), Kolb’s Learning Style Inventory (LSI) and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). It’s difficult to believe that both Honey & Mumford and Kolb’s models (used widely in training/education) were found to meet only ONE of the four minimum criteria and neither received support or recommendation from the review team. Incredible.
Those of us with a penchant for accessible tools often use models that – on face value – appear credible and are well thought of by our peer groups. Prof Coffield’s findings give resounding cause for concern though. His team dismissed some of the most popular models completely, but also made sound recommendations for good practice in the place of learning styles theories. If you’re serious about your practice – indeed, if you’re using some of these models in person – then you really should feel duty bound to read through the work yourself and make an informed choice about whether or not to continue:
- Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning – A systematic and critical review
(The full, 182 page, fully detailed report for academics and researchers following up the work)
- Should we be using learning styles? What research has to say to practice
(An 84 page reference for the rest of us. The conclusions in both papers are the same, but this paper is directed at practitioner level. If you’re using – or considering using – learning styles in your repertoire then you really should have a thorough understanding of the recommendations in this report).
In June 2004 the Minister for School Standards, David Miliband, commissioned an independent report to consider the issue of learning. The findings, published by Demos, strongly support Coffield et al.
A bleak picture? Not quite. There’re actually some really useful things we can do to promote learning (and educational dialogue) without resorting to unproved learning styles theories. As Coffield’s team point out, Hattie (1999) detailed effect sizes for classroom interventions, concluding that reinforcement, prior cognitive ability, instructional quality, direct instruction and student disposition to learn (in that order) were by far the most important matters deserving of our attention.
Les Howles’s “Learning Styles: What the Research Says and How to Apply it to Designing E-Learning” is a detail rich summary written in 2006. He indicates a misplaced focus on learning styles and how this focus can be replaced by consideration of “learner attributes that have been tried, tested and proven true (prior knowledge, motivation, aptitudes, and learner confidence related to the content or task to be learned). Interestingly, both “Prior knowledge” and “motivation” sit well within 2 of Hattie’s previously detailed top 5 effect sizes (prior cognitive ability and disposition).
When supporting performance improvements at work I try to consider baseline questions such as:
- What prior knowledge does this learner have? (exams/recent training and education etc)
- How motivated are they? (Not just how motivated they appear, in interview etc. What is their behaviour like? Do their words match their actions? What evidence supports this?)
- How confident are they (going into the learning experience or exam)
- Do they demonstrate natural aptitude?
Responses can be matched with efforts towards interventions of best effect – high quality delivery, matched with reinforcement and individual attention.
Learning Styles – a well intentioned, misdirected effort. The research is there and it has addressed us all; we must develop our practice carefully if we are to improve the quality and experience of learning in our classrooms. If you’ve read my article 7±2 you will have noticed that I’ve highlighted two useful ‘chunks’ for your consideration – 5 interventions and 4 questions (both sitting nicely at 5 items ±2). A simple recipe, easily memorised. Simple, but proven.